The Osprey has always lacked firepower in its forward hemisphere. Beyond its ramp-mounted gun, various concepts have been tested and fielded in an attempt to provide fire towards where the aircraft is headed, not just where it has been. This issue is compounded by the fact that the Osprey outruns traditional helicopter gunship escorts, but a solution may have finally arrived.
Now, the Bell and Boeing consortium that manufacturers the Osprey is looking to overcome this handicap in a big way, through rocket and missiles pods mounted on the Osprey's cheeks. The results of which could change the way the Osprey fights and could lead to more elaborate and deadly V-22 configurations in the future.
These new weapons stations have been primarily tested with unguided 2.75 inch 'Hydra' rockets and a guided version of the Hydra known as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS for short. The idea behind BAe's APKWS, and a handful of similar guided rockets from other manufacturers, is remarkably simple: Take a 2.75 inch 'Hydra' rocket motor and attach an innovative distributed aperture laser seeker system built into the control fins of a modular guidance section. In front of both the motor and the guidance section, a plethora of different fusing and warheads options can be attached, such as impact detonating high-explosive, air-burst flechette, white phosphorus and more.
When viewing the APKWS as an assembled whole, what you end up with is a lightweight, highly adaptable and very accurate attack munition, of which seven can fit in a LAU-60 style rocket pod attached to the Osprey's improvised 'cheek' weapons station. Currently, each APKWS rocket costs about $30k, which is fairly inexpensive when it comes to guided munitions. Still, that cost will likely drop drastically over time if large quantities of the rockets are bought for a wide array of helicopter, fixed wing and even ground and surface-based weapons platforms. In the end, the APKWS has the potential to become one of the cheapest powered precision guided munitions available.
These 2.75 laser-guided rockets are ideal for lightly armored and soft targets, such as armored cars and dismounted personnel. Additionally, they have a long enough range so that the firing aircraft can stay largely outside the threat envelope of small arms fire while engaging targets. Also, the fact that seven of these individually targetable rockets can be packed into a single pod makes them very attractive compared to larger missiles.
In addition to laser rockets, AGM-176 'Griffin-B' missiles have also been tested on the Osprey's experimental new weapons stations. The Griffin is a capable little missile, with various fusing options available depending on the nature of the target, including air burst, point detonation and time-delay settings for its 13lb warhead. It has a range of close 15km when fired via an aircraft, which would give the Griffin-slinging Osprey a true standoff attack capability and would provide a more potent ability to take out armored vehicles than the APKWS. It can be targeted by a laser or via GPS, which would give Osprey crews the ability to lob the missile at targets even when they are obscured visibly or are unable to be 'painted' by a laser designator for any number of reasons.
For what the Griffin adds in targeting capability, range and punch it takes away in volume of fire, with just two missiles being carried on the Osprey's stub-arm weapons station as opposed to seven APKWS rockets. There is also a non-powered version of the Griffin that can be dropped out of an aircraft. Although it does not have nearly the range and rapid transit time as the Griffin-B, they one day could be deployed via the Osprey's rear ramp or belly door via 'gunslinger tubes,' which would drastically increase the tilt-rotor's attack organic capabilities.
In all, 26 unguided 2.75 inch rockets, as well as a pair of APKWS rockets and a pair of Griffin missiles were fired during the experimental evaluation. These firings were carried out during both hover and during forward flight at 110 knots. This entire development program has been orchestrated outside of the DoD's weapons development apparatus, with Bell-Boeing's Advanced Tactical Tilt Rotor Demonstrator, which is basically a V-22 test surrogate aircraft, used for the privately funded endeavor.
The stub-arm weapons station fitted to the Osprey's cheek is said to have had no major structural loading issues whatsoever and a permanently fixed pylon could potentially carry much heavier weapons, such as gun pods, larger missiles, or even a larger APKWS rocket pod. This is probably welcome news and good business for the Bell-Boeing team as both the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) and the Marines remain very interested in making their Osprey's more flexible, lethal and self-reliant, especially when it comes to providing their own fire support.
A trap-door mounted mini-gun known as the Interim Defensive Weapon System, built by BAe, was supposed to answer some of these forward firing capability gaps, but the system proved to be heavy, complex and took up a space right in the center of the V-22's narrow hold. These issues and others led the once promising system being omitted during many V-22 operations in Afghanistan.
By arming the Osprey with progressively more capable weapons, able to engage the enemy from multiple angles and at ranges that exceed that of machine guns, the Osprey will be able to rely less and less on mismatched aircraft for armed escort, a mission that at least for the Marines was traditionally fulfilled by AH-1 Cobra. Seeing as the Cobra cannot keep up with the Osprey, nor does it have anywhere near the range, a huge gap remains when it comes to the armed escort mission.
The AV-8B Harrier plays this role to a certain degree today, but it is weakly suited to operate deep in enemy airspace for prolonged periods of time. The F-35B, the Harrier's replacement and then some, will be a far better fit for the Osprey's deep insertion capabilities, but they will be in limited number and heavily tasked by the Expeditionary Strike Group for other missions. Additionally, they themselves will probably also be relying on Osprey's for tanking and communications relay duties in the not so distant future.
With all these factors in mind, the ability to provide armed escort for the existing Osprey fleet with armed Ospreys is really the most logical choice for the mission. Although such an upgrade will cost some money to field, with a new FLIR turret capable of laser designation needing to be added as well as the weapons station being attached and the weapons themselves integrated into the V-22's avionics system, even costly upgrades pale in comparison to a program that will see 240 Ospreys fielded at around $75M apiece. Since we already paid so dearly for such a large tilt-rotor force, we may as well get the very most out of it, and just one part of this is giving the existing MV-22 and CV-22 force armed escorts that properly match their unique, if not totally bizarre mission profiles.
If the AFSOC and/or the USMC decides to proceed with adding the upgraded attack capabilities that Bell-Boeing just proved the Osprey is capable of, there is a decent chance that an up-armed V-22 will not just stop at a cheek pylon full of laser guided rockets and a belly-mounted mini-gun. Similar to the latest AC-130 Gunships and KC-130 Harvest Hawks, the Osprey may one day use their cargo holds and rear-ramps for storing and deploying glide bombs such as the previously mentioned Griffin-A, in addition to externally mounted weaponry. This all leaves us with the glaring question: Just how much weaponry can you pack on the V-22's tricky airframe without having to permanently turn it into a dedicated gunship?
I guess we will just have wait patiently for the folks at Bell-Boeing to answer this question, that is if the market demands it being answered, which it almost certainly does.
Source/Photos: Bell Textron
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com